Jean-David Mizrahi's book Genèse de l'Etat mandataire. Service des Renseignements et bandes armées en Syrie et au Liban dans les années 1920 [Genesis of the Mandate State. French Military Intelligence and Armed Bands in Syria and Lebanon during the 1920s] explores the peculiar moment constituted by the imposition of the French mandate's order over the societies of the Levantine states. While the author's initial purpose was to write the "total history" of a specific military administration, here the Military Intelligence Service in the Levant (from here on SR, for Service des Renseignements), his final objective was "to observe and to explain how an administration of a colonial type on one hand, and a phenomenon such as the armed bands on the other hand, actually start[ed] resonating, to the point that [the dialectic of their relation] constituted a noticeable outline of the mandate history in its first phase" (p. 9). In the meantime, the author explains how substantial the SR was, till the second half of the 1920s, to the very apparatus of the mandatory state. The analysis of how this service functioned thus is in a sense a metaphor for the evolutions which the mandate institution itself underwent: "Since it [was] the only service of the mandate to exercise its competences on the whole of the Syrian states, horizontally (all the territories [were] concerned) as well as vertically (from the political cabinet of the High Commissioner to the Caza officer), the SR of the Levant seems to be the perfect point from which to observe the mandate's potential internal cracks" (p. 88).
Actually, while it had been functioning since its creation as the most "important leverage of the Mandate's power", the SR eventually transformed itself in a true autonomous "counter-power" when its chiefs managed, in 1926, to ruin the policy of agreement with the urban Syrian nationalists which de Jouvenel, the first civil High-Commissioner, had then launched in the aftermath of the Druze revolt. At this time, however, the critical turn initiated by the French Mandate toward the states of the Levant marked by their effective recognition - and subsequent empowerment - could not be reversed. In the following years this act of insubordination by the military vis-à-vis political power resulted in the progressive containment of the former to purely intelligence tasks. This inflection, accompanied by the departure of the officers most compromised by the early Mandate regime, eventually led in 1931 to the suppression of the SR and to the reappointment of the remaining personnel to the Services Spéciaux du Levant. Members of this service provided into necessary technical expertise, were from then on carefully kept away from the political authority of the Mandate.
Mizrahi's book is organised along two interlinked parallel axes: first, the question of "insecurity" produced by insurgent armed bands in the mountains and the countryside of the Syrian periphery, an essentially rural phenomenon which was defined and measured by the officers of the SR themselves through their actions on the ground and the reports they produced for the administration's sake; second, the formative process by which the northern and southern borders of Syria came to be progressively defined and settled through the convergence of interests uniting all the new political entities created upon the ruins of the Ottoman empire. After years of turmoil caused by the Ottoman collapse, and for the sake of their own stability, these political entities were faced with the coercive order of the modern state.
In this context, Mizrahi's approach excels in analysing the subtleties of everyday events:
"In the first half of the 1920s, the SR of the Levant on the one hand, the armed bands' phenomena on the other, clearly maintain[ed] a relation of a dialectical type. The existence, in the border's areas, of refraction zones where the armed groups were form[ed] and from where they launch[ed] their actions, weigh[ed] and work[ed] on the organisation and the functioning of the SR, at the very moment when the latter strongly contribute[d] to the emergence of dissidence and to the production of banditisme because it introduce[d] the state power at the heart of the local societies" (p. 415).
The question is not then "to confront head-on the question of nationalist resistance to the Mandate", which found its culmination in the two moments of more or less generalised revolt defined by the events of the years 1920-21 and 1925-1926 but, on the contrary, to focus "on the chronicle of an 'ordinary banditisme' [in order to] reveal the strength lines most often concealed by the density of events characterising the insurrectionary moments." From this point of view, the armed bands "represent[ed] the vector of insecurity which interact[ed] in the clearest way with the twofold structuring process of the mandatory power on the one hand, and of the states under Mandate on the other, through the question of the borders' stabilisation especially" (p. 10). It is then only once the latter were definitively settled and their control strongly secured by the powerful action of the SR, helped in this task by the interested cooperation of the neighbouring states (Kemalist Turkey and the Transjordanian Emirate under British mandate), that the French mandate found it possible to enter in a less military and more diplomatic phase of its history. In the meantime, the Syrian nationalist camp had, for its part, initiated a 'grieving process' of the Ottoman and greater Syria's spatial imagination. This internal work leading to the acceptance of the new political realities gave the Syrian nationalists the chance to realign themselves over new forms of mobilisations, and to elaborate new modes of action, of a less military and more urban nature than what had been the case in the first phase of the anti-colonial struggle against the imposition of the mandate regime. Yet, the necessity of enforcing the mandate's order in the border areas had led to the organisation by the SR of the gendarmes' auxiliary units, recruited mainly among the Syrian ethnic or religious minorities, and it was those units which were to contribute later, together with the Levies troops of the Armée du Levant whose profile of recruitment was similar, to the formation of Syria's new national army: a situation which was bound to be "of course, the premise of further dramatic developments" (p. 401).
Mizrahi's book has numerous qualities all of which indicate that it will become one of the major references on the history of Syria and of the French policies in the Levant during the period under study. Other than an extraordinary command of existing academic literature on the subject, the fluidity of the author's writing is exemplary. It not only allows him to develop the most complex analyses in an easy-to-read style but also, thanks to its literary qualities, to accurately account for the actors' logic, even the most intimate ones. If one of the most striking features of this remarkable work of history is the empathy deployed by the author in order to penetrate deeply into the consciousnesses of all colonial parties involved, no less remarkable is his exceptional ability to reveal the humane beings behind the dryness of administrative reports and papers: here the craft of the historian shows itself at its best. Against the background of a linear temporality, the book excels in highlighting the ambiguities and contradictions in which its main actors are caught, and how they progressively come to be out of sync with the realities of the evolution of the mandate itself.
Based on the extremely careful analysis of an impressive range of documentation, Mizrahi's groundbreaking study then succeeds brilliantly in offering a very sensible yet critical understanding of the dynamics of all the actors it embraces. Although it is centred on the officers of the SR, it mirrors the existence of the latter's counterparts; the Syrian rural insurgents. Eventually, in the analysis of the mandate's logics revealed by the history of the SR, neither the superior levels of the mandate's administration nor the world of the Syrian urban notables totally escape from the scope of this analysis.
A last point worth mentioning among the qualities of this book is the regular and masterly use of comparisons with other historical contexts that the author makes. In this he succeeds in universalizing the humane dynamics of the actors and reintroducing the peculiar details of his study into a wider vision of the profound unity of world history. That said, the break in the rhythm of the narrative caused by the third part of the book which is devoted to an extensive and comprehensive prosopographic analysis of the group of officers who constituted the SR is somewhat disturbing. One wonders if it could not have been published apart as a study in its own, and only synthesized and referred to in the book. It is however clear that, while constituting the most original and technical part of Mizrahi's work, it lies at the core of the whole book. As such readers should instead be pleased that the conditions of French academic publishing allowed the author to maintain the initial work intact. Yet, if remarks had to be made on the final aspect of the book, it would concern its edition including a fair amount of typographic errors and other editing mistakes in the text itself. The printing of the book on glossy paper also rendered the process of reading quite uncomfortable, be it under natural or electric light.
Author: Jean-David Mizrahi
Book: Genèse de l'Etat mandataire. Service des Renseignements et bandes armées en Syrie et au Liban dans les années 1920
Publisher: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2003
Reviewer: Edouard Méténier